Thursday, July 30, 2009

By Every Means but Actual Practice in the Arts

A history of English grammar in the United States would afford some amusement if a rational mind could derive any amusement from perusing a record of abortive attempts to teach the correct use of language by every means but actual practice in the arts of speaking and writing it. Wallis (WB Fowle) 1850.

In Who Killed Homer?, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath state that English grammar wasn't taught in schools until fairly recent times. This surprised me, because I think of English grammar as one of those "traditional subjects". I guess it is traditional in that it goes back to the 18th century, but not before.

Hanson and Heath write about schooling in America, and this is around the time of the founding of the nation (page 12):

Once again the use of classical antiquity as the basis for general education was challenged, this time on grounds of practicality and relevance. As the historian Meyer Reinhold has pointed out, from its inception America was on a "quest for useful knowledge". What kind of education was practical and purposeful? Was education to make students better men and citizens, or to prepare them for the "real" world? (As if the two goals were different!). ....

(goes on to mention that some founders, like Jefferson, were proponents of classical education while others, such as Franklin and Paine, were not)

By 1800 new utilitarian subjects -- the physical sciences, modern languages, history and geography -- were slipping into the American democratic curriculum to challenge Classics. Benajmin Franklin's ideal system of education and expression promoted the vernacular. Noah Webster also demanded a universal education, based on the sciences and English language and grammar. "What advantage does a merchant, a mechanic, a farmer, derive from an acquaintance with the Greek and Roman tongue?" A writer in 1778 put it most bluntly: "Many of our young people are knocking their head against the Iliad, who should employ their hands in clearing our swamps and draining our marshes."

Then, as now, Classics -- and particularly the learning of ancient Greek -- was accused of being useless, impractical, a waste of time, undemocratic, and antithetical to the acquisition of trades and professions. It would not ensure you a job or even provide a useful skill.."
The reason this seems interesting to me is because I wonder if it affected HOW English grammar was taught and if that in turn has contributed to the grammar wars today. Latin and Greek grammar (and the grammar of any modern foreign language) is taught because its systematic study helps build a foundation to understand and speak/write the foreign language. In the process of learning a language that is not your own, particularly an inflected one upon which our language is based, like Latin, you also do pick up a better understanding of the mechanics of your own language. The goal of studying the classic languages was originally thought of as a kind of fruitfulness or transmission. It was not just to be better than everyone else or to have a bunch of knowledge that other people did not have. Education was partly expected to preserve a culture and partly to transmit it and even improve upon it -- a kind of cultural husbandry or agrarianism.

Quintilian talked about teaching the "orator" -- a good man and good speaker. Ignatius taught the classics in order to educate those who would go on to evangelize, instruct and pursue the truth.

However, English grammar in itself is rather a "scientific" study. (Or so it seems to me). The way it is often traditionally taught, it is less to do with function -- understanding and writing better -- and more to do with information in itself. I wonder if this is because of the Enlightenment era the study grew up in, where "information" was thought more valuable than expression. Ed Vavra used to have an online book called "Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art" which talked a bit about the history of grammar study. ... his work is intended to reclaim grammar analysis as a tool for better writing and reading. This can sound a bit progressive, especially when he quotes Noah Chomsky, but it actually goes back closer to the original intention of vernacular grammar as understood by Ignatius and other Renaissance educational reformers -- grammar is primarily functional, a means to an end (the end being proper expression), and should thus take a subordinate place in the curriculum.

There is a an old printed dissertation at Google Books called English Grammar in American Schools before 1850. From what this work says, there were two distinct but overlapping movements post-Reformation to teach the mother tongue in the schools.

One was the general trend of Ignatians and post-Reformation educators like Comenius to include more study of the vernacular alongside of the classical languages. Mother tongues tended to have become richer through the classical languages and for the first time it was possible to have a vigorous vernacular literature. The explosive growth of the vernacular literatures came about at this time hand in hand with a revival of interest in classicism, and probably also partly due to the potential of the printing press.

The second movement was John Locke's. His reasons for teaching English language in the schools were more like the ones described above. He was the original "pour information into the vessel" educationalist (he invented the "tabula rasa" or blank slate concept of early childhood) and he believed that the classics education was not practical or useful. The arts of expression became not general formative goals but the province more of specialists. As you can see, his ideas made a big impression in America, active work-oriented culture as it is.

The dissertation also points out that explicit teaching of the English language was also important when so much of the incoming population was from foreign countries. This is a good point but again, makes the proper end of grammar to do with correct and fluent communication, not as an end in itself.

Yawn,... sorry. I know this is not very useful information ;-). The point, again, was that I understand the Grammar Wars slightly better now. The "traditionalists" in education promote the formal study of English grammar. My husband would always say he figured out in 4th grade that the object of grammar study was to raise future grammar teachers. While I would argue about the essential philosophical grounding of formal language analysis and its value from that perspective, I could see his point. The "progressives" will point out that formal grammar study does not generally improve one's writing ability, which is true. But the traditionalists will say that it's because it's not taught thoroughly or rigorously enough. However, English grammar taught as philology is a science, and pushing the sciences on students at too early an age would be for the classical liberal arts educationalist a distortion. The "artes" were targeted to better expression and understanding, not to simple accumulation of information.

According to this book on the History of Education, the original "vernacular schools" were typically centered around learning the catechism and the Bible. Only later did the schools take on a "disciplinary" role, inspired by Locke's theories of education.

A lot of times, you see the Education Battles of today basically play out on the terrain that Locke and Rousseau staked out -- the traditionalists follow the Lockean camp and the progressives the Rousseau one. But it seems there was an older, classic tradition that wasn't identical with either of these -- a liberal arts view of education. It still survives too, but it doesn't frame the debate in the same way as either of the two camps.

I'd better stop there, for now, at least.


  1. Willa, I am always amazed by you brain LOL. I'm in the middle of a pregnancy and already brain-fried from taking care of 2 year old twin boys.... but I'm always interested in reading what you're up to.

    I have a BA in Linguistics, and am still very interested in the science of language. It's fascinating how it is all put together and like all science, really points to the existence of a perfect and orderly God.

    I've waffled back and forth over the prescriptive grammar in schools as well, and it's quite interesting to read about how it came about. So often, the 'right' language, or the 'right dialect' (which can involve different forms of grammar)has been used as a source of control and power over others who are not using the dominant language.
    I found 'descriptive' (as opposed to prescriptive) grammar to be so much more interesting.

  2. Gosh, that's a lot of thinking and writing you did!! I'm so impressed...

    When I taught math the students would always wonder when they were going to use Geometry or Algebra II and I would say, "Maybe never. But it helps you think better."

  3. Excellent post! I tend to think of teaching grammar partly as a form of logic and problem solving, similar to learning math or logic, perhaps. Of course it goes hand-in-hand with the logic and thinking skills that enable students to do critical reading and writing.

  4. Does this mean I can skip teaching my children grammar? They would support that!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!